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'The only film I could think about making was about people who kept going in spite of it'

An Irish documentary maker explores the issues of money and music in his new film about the label Chemikal Underground.

Source: Curzon Artificial Eye/YouTube

IN 1997, AN independent record label was set up by a group of Glasgow musicians who didn’t know a lot about running a music label.

But their business, Chemikal Underground, still exists today, and was responsible for some amazing bands: Mogwai, Franz Ferdinand, Delgados, Arab Strap.

Now an Irish documentary maker, Niall McCann, tells the story of the label, and through that looks at how things have drastically changed in the music scene over the past 20 years.

Lost in France sees McCann bringing some of the label members back to Brittany, where they did a series of gigs over 18 years ago at the Mauron Music Festival. It’s a chance for them to reassess their work and the work of the label, and reflect on how things have changed.

For music fans, it’s an opportunity to look at what it really takes to run a label; musicians will find much to nod their head at during the documentary.

Militantly independent

In the film, the label heads admit that they were “very arrogant back then – we knew the best bands to sign”. But this arrogance worked. They were also able to tap into Glasgow’s DIY culture and really take a hands-on approach. They were militantly independent in their outlook.

The documentary explores the question of who has the ability to make art, and the challenges – monetary, social – that can stand in people’s way. If it wasn’t for the dole, most of the Chemikal Underground musicians wouldn’t have been able to do the work they did.

“Everyone should be” able to make art, says McCann over the phone to TheJournal.ie, but points out that there can be a lack of opportunity for people who don’t come from money or power.

He says he has watched as “attitudes towards social welfare have changed immensely even in my lifetime”.

He has been disappointed to see that some reviews of the film haven’t touched on the fact that it explores class and social welfare, when that can’t be avoided when you’re talking about musicians from Glasgow.

McCann recalls going to a talk by George Galloway – though he’s not a fan of his – where he said that “if you live week-to-week you are working class”, an idea which stuck with the filmmaker.

“I think the majority of people live week-to-week,” says McCann.

Most people are in a way the working class or the middle class. Most people have jobs where they are not earning a lot of money, they really live week-to-week. Even people who come from comfortable backgrounds can’t really take a risk with the arts.

That’s in part because, he says, the music industry has been “decimated”, being almost “completely on its knees, destroyed by the internet and file-sharing”.

“If you’re a pop artist like Rihanna or Adele with an established audience, you will be fine. People will still buy your albums. But the people in the film, it’s very difficult to see them making a living off it. That is going to affect the work,” says McCann.

McCann himself has been on the dole, and had to move back home with his parents, and knows the stigma that can come with it: “You feel guilty a lot, you feel like you’re doing something wrong even when you’re not, even when you’re doing work.”

Reflecting what was going on in his life during the tough times, McCann says: “The only film I could think about making was about people who kept going in spite of it – because that was what I was trying to do.”

I wanted to find a space to discuss those political things and how society has changed even in the 20 years since Chemikal Underground had started out. I wanted to make a film about music that [showed] when I was young and when I got lost [it] inspired me. I saw these guys in Glasgow who were doing something that they weren’t supposed to do. They did it because they wanted to – on their own terms, they were stubborn, arrogant.

Under pressure

When he first met Chemikal Underground co-founder Stewart Henderson, he could see the toll the changes in the music industry had taken.

I could see the stress he was under, and he didn’t see any good in what Chemikal had done; he didn’t think they had done anything important, that anything that was done on the label was done by the bands. The pressure he was under trying to keep it together.

One of the musicians in the film, RM Hubbert, is an example of just how things have changed, says McCann. Though he won the Scottish Music Award – the Scottish version of the Mercury Music Prize – things haven’t gone as planned.

“He has really felt it because since he’s been making music he’s been watching his sales dwindle, audiences’ ability to travel, and touring doesn’t make him a lot of money anymore. He doesn’t see a lot of hope at the minute.”

Labelmates Delgados and Mogwai were, on the other hand, pretty successful.

McCann looks at the notion of “success” and what this means in the film.

“Increasingly success is viewed in monetary terms and that’s something that is problematic really if you are talking about art – how do you judge it? Do you judge it on sales? All these things come up, which of these guys are successful and in different ways they are all.”

The story isn’t just about musicians in Glasgow, says McCann – in a way “it’s about all of us”, from Tesco workers striking, to people on the dole.

“When I was growing up I wanted to be a music journalist and write for NME and now it’s a free magazine,” he says by way of an example of how the music industry has changed.

“We wanted our film to be a warning in a way but also we don’t have any answers – there is a melancholy at the end of the film about the future and what’s going to happen.” He hopes the film will bring about a wider discussion these topics.

The Irish attitude to arts

“We do have a weird attitude to the arts in Ireland,” says McCann. “We are really good at it but we don’t seem to value it in the way we do. You have this sort of anomaly of Irish film doing well but again it’s couched economic terms.” He says that he wouldn’t want to live in an Ireland without an Irish Film Board.

Even as a filmmaker himself, his film was released by the well-known Artificial Eye but he had to recently take up a temporary contract with the civil service to make money.

“Artists aren’t asking for much – they are asking for minimum wage,” says McCann. “Just enough so you can concentrate on your work.”

He credits the team he worked with, including producers Nicky Gogan and Paul Welsh, with helping bring the whole project together, which also reflects the theme of teamwork in the film.

It was our story too – it could be anyone really, it could be a group of friends going away inter-railing.We thought it reflected what’s going on in film at the minute and what is going on in the wider society in a way.

“I’m not a left loony,” says McCann wryly. “I am just someone that thinks we should look after each other a bit more, and I think it was funny to see these themes are reflected in something like a little record label, because they did it all together.”

The film is a love letter to the time that Chemikal Underground emerged in, says McCann. While he finds it sad to think about the challenges the label faces, he says “what I like about the guys is they don’t give up”.

Lost in France is out in cinemas now.

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